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Temple joins sites opening doors to homeless

Candice Williams
The Detroit News

For more than 30 years, a growing number of churches, synagogues and mosques throughout Oakland County have opened their doors to house the homeless through South Oakland Shelter’s emergency rotating shelter program.

The Lathrup Village-based organization has grown the program to cover 52 weeks a year with the help of nearly 100 houses of worship.

Temple Shir Shalom in West Bloomfield Township is the latest to join the rotation. Last week, it housed 32 people, including singles and families.

The temple first approached South Oakland Shelter about joining the program about 18 months ago, said Andre Douville, executive director of Temple Shir Shalom. It took about a year to plan for the guests to stay at the temple’s nonprofit location, The Corners, also in West Bloomfield Township.

Last week, volunteers prepared beds, linens and supplies for their guests. An average of 45 volunteers helped each day, Douville said.

During the past year, guests have found shelter at 47 churches and five synagogues, said Austin Kralisz, volunteer coordinator for SOS. The participation is wider than that, however, with 95 congregations involved and at times pitching in to help each other, Kralisz said. Between 250 and 300 people spend time in the shelter program each year.

The rotating shelter, considered transitional housing, is one of three programs the South Oakland Shelter offers throughout the year. Guests stay for about 30 days but may receive an extension of up to 90 days.

“Obviously, it’s not ideal as a long-term solution, but our congregations are very hospitable to provide people with comfortable accommodations and three meals a day,” said Ryan Hertz, president and CEO of SOS. “The goal is to help them move out of the shelter as soon as possible to housing to get back on their feet. It’s badly needed, but ideally short term.”

Other programs offered are for the chronically homeless, and one assists clients who have moved into permanent housing.

During their stay in the rotating shelter, guests head out each day to their jobs, to seek employment or to attend school. Volunteers sometimes provide transportation.

The program was a tremendous help for Oak Park resident Renee Avery, 47, who became homeless for several months last year after she left her job as a supervisor for a third-party pharmaceutical company and drained her savings to take care of her ailing father and later pay for his funeral arrangements.

After sending her two children to live with their father in Westland, Avery took a string of temporary jobs. For a period of time, she slept in her car until she was placed in SOS’ shelter program. Her nearly 90-day stay provided time to save for a new place to live, she said.

“The best part of moving around was the people that I met at the different churches,” she said. “I appreciate all the people who would get to know me.”

Avery has returned to her role as a supervisor, now for a call center. And her children live with her again.

Among the original host sites is Birmingham First United Methodist Church. Coordinators Kathy Nauer and Page Gorman have adapted their volunteer week to include group talks, bingo games with prizes and a picnic at the Detroit Zoo.

“I know churches do different things,” Nauer said. “It’s a rough week. It’s an exhausting week. You have to really love the concept and, you know, it’s not hard to get hooked on it. Everybody is on a journey. They’re trying to move forward.”

Nauer said she’s seen the face of homelessness change over time.

“Twenty-five years back, we had folks who came in who were mainly men, a lot of drug addiction, alcohol addiction,” she said. “Every once in a while there would be a family. As things progressed, you started to see the economics of the world were affecting folks. For a period of time, there were a lot more females, a lot more families, individuals who have lost jobs, lost homes. ...

“During the economic downturn, we saw people with higher education and for whatever reason they didn’t have family as backup. As the job market has gotten better, we see so many people with health issues.”

Douville said things were going well for the volunteers and guests at Temple Shir Shalom last week. The temple plans to do it next year again, he said.

“We think it’s important to do it in the winter when it might be more difficult to house these folks,” Douville said. “We want (SOS) to put it in the schedule so they know they can rely on us.”

cwilliams@detroitnews.com

(313) 222-2311